2017 in review

What we’ve learned: 5 lessons from education research to take into 2018

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

Education research comes out faster than most of us can keep up with — and staying up to date gets even harder when advocates on every side claim that the newest study supports their views.

We’re here to help. Here are some of the most important lessons we’re taking away from 2017, thanks to the researchers who do their best to separate fact from fiction. (The typical caveats apply: these are all subject to change based on new evidence, and each study has limitations.)

1. Teacher certification rules can have negative side effects.

There are two big ways that rules about who can and can’t teach cause problems. First, they disproportionately exclude teachers of color, who a bevy of recent studies have shown benefit students of color. High-stakes exams, GPA cutoffs, and traditional training requirements all hit would-be teachers of color the hardest, and there’s no clear solution.

Another downside of existing rules: they can make it hard for teachers to move to a new state. A recent study finds that although teachers are less likely to move between states than many other professionals, perhaps because of challenges in gaining a new license.

This can hurt students, particularly if effective teachers leave education as a result. And it may explain another new finding: that schools near state borders — and thus most affected by teachers unable to move between states — have lower student achievement.

2. Union protections may benefit students.

Teachers unions have long argued that by protecting teachers and bargaining for better pay, they ultimately help students. Research bolstered their case this year.

Most prominently, an analysis found that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s successful effort to dramatically scale back union power hurt student test scores. Another study, this one from California, showed that when charter schools unionize, students saw larger test score gains. That study wasn’t able to pinpoint why.

Two other studies — one from Louisiana, the other from Michigan — showed that removing tenure protections increased teacher turnover, at least in some schools. Past research has found that turnover usually harms students.

3. Students who stay in voucher programs longer do better.

As U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pushed private school vouchers into the limelight, critics have seized on recent studies showing that using public money to attend a private school can hurt student learning.

But analyses out of Indiana and Louisiana suggest that students who stick around in private school for three to four years see their scores bounce back after an initial drop. By year four, students in Indiana even made some gains in English. Still, many other students saw test scores drop because of the program, including those who left early and students in younger grades in Louisiana.

The disappointing test score results pushed voucher proponents to focus on their impact on other metrics, like high school graduation or college attendance. One study this year found that Florida students who used a tax-credit voucher were more likely to enroll in — though not necessarily complete — two-year college than similar students who attended public school.

4. State tests provide useful information about how schools affect students. Testing can also have unintended consequences.

One study focusing on charter high schools in Chicago showed that not only did those schools raise test scores substantially, they also helped send more kids to college and to stay there. That was also true of Chicago’s Noble charters, a high-profile network. Another piece of research from this year came to a similar conclusion: students who attended high schools in Michigan that raised students’ test scores also earned higher GPAs in college. At least in these contexts, tests were a meaningful gauge of school quality.

However, we also looked at a study showing that students were (slightly) less happy in the classrooms of teachers who were effective at raising test scores. This suggests that there are multiple dimensions to good teaching — and being good at one aspect doesn’t mean you’re good at others.

Finally, another study highlights the challenges of using tests to hold schools accountable: by focusing on test results starting only in third grade — the first year with federally mandated exams — schools are encouraged to place their weaker teachers in earliest grades. And many schools, at least in Miami, Florida, did just that.

5. We still don’t know much about how to turn around a struggling school.

This lesson may be the least surprising to policymakers. But as states try to help low-performing schools under the new federal education law, ESSA, they have a thin research base to draw from.

The highest-profile study on the topic came at the beginning of the year: a federal analysis of the Obama-era turnaround plan known as School Improvement Grants. It did not have any clear benefits — a finding DeVos has since touted to promote her own favored strategies.

But other studies from this year suggest that the effects of the federal improvement grants varied by place: They appear to have had a big impact in both Ohio and San Francisco, but not in Rhode Island.

New York City has also wrestled with this challenge. Early research has found that the city’s high-profile and expensive effort to help schools by offering wraparound services and other help had produced only mixed results.

testing accountability

Pressuring schools to raise test scores got diminishing returns, new study of No Child Left Behind finds

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Does tightening the screws on schools and teachers lead to benefits for students?

For the past couple of decades, school reform efforts have assumed that the answer is yes. Setting ambitious goals, and putting pressure on schools to reach them, would push students ahead. And past research has shown that math scores rose as more states began threatening and sanctioning schools with low test scores in the 2000s.

But a new study shows that continuing to to “raise the bar” during the No Child Left Behind era only had a modest effect at best. That raises questions about whether the small gains were worth the political controversy, and what critics claim were the educational costs, of putting a greater focus on test scores.

“These results suggest that the ratcheting [up] of test-based accountability pressures alone is not enough to sustain improvements in student achievement,” conclude researchers Vivian Wong, Coady Wing, David Martin, and Anandita Krishnamachari.

Their paper, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, focuses on the several years after the federal No Child Left Behind law was signed in 2002. The law — which passed with bipartisan support but would eventually draw bipartisan ire — required states to test students annually and set goals for schools. Schools that didn’t meet them faced sanctions.

States each set their own targets using different tests. But the researchers attempted to ask the same questions of each state: How hard was it for each school to hit its goals, and how did that change between 2003 and 2011? Then, they looked at how students did on the National Assessment for Educational Progress. Did states see larger gains on the federal low-stakes test after making life tougher on schools?

In many states, it really did become harder and harder for schools to measure up. In 2008, Education Week noted that California’s school failure rate jumped from 34 to 48 percent between 2007 and 2008. In Vermont, the climb was even steeper: from 12 percent of schools failing to 37 percent.

This added pressure, the authors conclude, seemed to lead to national gains in eighth grade math and reading. But the effect was tiny: about half a point in both subjects. (For comparison’s sake, the difference in performance between white and black students in eighth grade math was 32 points on the latest test.)

“Though they find positive effects, like everyone in this literature, they are small [effects],” Tom Dee, a Stanford education professor.

That said, the gains were largest for certain disadvantaged groups: English language learners, Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and students who started at the lowest levels of performance.

There was no evidence of higher standards causing any improvements in fourth grade math or reading.

If this shows that raising the bar doesn’t do much, though, past research has shown that just having a bar can make a big difference.

In states that didn’t have accountability systems at all before No Child Left Behind, creating them led to big gains on national low-stakes math tests: 8 points in fourth grade and 5 points in eighth grade, according to a study from Dee.

Together, this research bolsters a theory known as the “accountability plateau” — that creating tougher rules boost performance, but ratcheting up the pressure leads to diminishing returns.

“It seems like when you implement an accountability system there’s an initial bump, but after that continued gains are hard to come by,” said Morgan Polikoff, a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied standards and accountability systems.

Dee was more skeptical of this idea. Schools’ goals were getting harder and harder to reach just as criticism of the law was cresting and politicians were considering changes.  

“Districts may have understood it was a nudge and a wink and it didn’t really have teeth,” he said of the law.

No Child Left Behind’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, takes a different tack. Instead of giving each state discretion in how many schools are identified as failing and requiring them to ramp up the consequences over time, the law requires each state to identify 5 percent of schools as low-performing.

The latest study suggests that might be a preferable approach if states are able to figure out better ways to help a small group of struggling schools improve. Turnaround efforts — including a prominent federal program backed by a lot of money — have often produced disappointing results.

“It remains unclear how states will implement ESSA,” write the researchers. “But the federal law will likely not succeed if performance requirements are not accompanied by additional support for educators.”

Lost in Translation

Detroit superintendent promises Spanish translators, other fixes for ‘broken’ system

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses Spanish-speaking parents during a forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School.

One by one, the parents who stood in the library of a Southwest Detroit elementary school turned to the district’s superintendent and told him heartbreaking stories of a school system they say has failed them.

Speaking primarily in Spanish through a translator, the parents described miscommunications in schools where nobody knows their language.

One woman teared up as she described her struggle to find out what happened after her son was injured in school. Another said her son’s learning disability went undiagnosed for years while her pleas for help went unanswered. Others told of run-ins with principals, and of school security guards who didn’t realize how alarming it is for immigrant parents to be asked for identification when they come into their children’s schools.

The speakers were members of parent and community groups who had requested a meeting with Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to discuss a range of concerns for Spanish-speaking parents.

They walked away with a list of promises from Vitti who says there’s a lot the district can do to better meet the needs of these families.

“I want you to hold me accountable,” Vitti told the several dozen parents who were assembled for the community forum at Munger Elementary-Middle School on Monday afternoon. 

He then rattled off a list of measures he planned to take to address their concerns. Among them, Vitti said he would:

  • Establish a Spanish hotline that parents can call to get help from the district in their native language;
  • Ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish;
  • Provide translation services to parents during meetings about the extra supports for children with disabilities;
  • Create a bilingual task force to address the needs of non-English speaking families;
  • Conduct an audit of school security guards to make sure the people stationed in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods are able to speak the language;
  • Develop a new parent identification process so that parents can access their children’s schools without being asked to present a government ID, making it easier for undocumented parents to participate in their children’s education; and,
  • Hire Spanish speakers for his communications staff to better spread district news through social media and phone calls.

Some of those items, like providing translators during meetings about special education, are required by law. Others, like establishing a hotline, seem like basic measures for a district like Detroit where more than 13 percent of students are Hispanic and 12 percent of students speak a language other than English at home.

But Vitti acknowledged that a lot of basic structures in the district are still being rebuilt after years of financial crises and oversight by state-appointed emergency managers.

“The commitment to do it wasn’t there,” he said.

Monday’s meeting came about, he said, because the district was regularly hearing from parents in Southwest Detroit about problems they were having.

“It was starting to become a theme and we felt we just needed to have one unified conversation and begin a momentum of more direct engagement with the community,” Vitti said.

Monday’s meeting was his first major sit-down with Spanish-speaking families since his arrival in Detroit last year. Vitti, who was there for two hours, promised to return for another meeting this fall to update the parents on the progress he’s made.

“Sometimes it’s hard for me to sit and listen to these stories because our school system has to do better for children,” Vitti told the parents as he finished listing the changes he said he would make. “I’m committed to doing better as a school system for all the parents here, but we have to do this together. Tell me what’s broken and tell me what’s wrong but also come with a solution and let’s all work together to make this a better district and a better community.”

Vitti also urged the parents to vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election adding that “it’s very clear who the candidate is who supports public education.”

Parents said they were grateful to have gotten an audience with Vitti and are hopeful that change will come.

“I’m still skeptical because the system is so broken,” said Maria Salinas who leads the Congress of Communities, one of the groups that organized the forum. “We’ve been given a lot of promises that didn’t come through” in the past … “but Vitti is giving us some hope.”